Tackling issue of empty homes in the Borders will strengthen communities - Mark Rowley

The pandemic has brought into acute focus the fact that housing is a public health issue and the connection between people and place has strengthened. There is a national focus on place-making and delivering a better standard of living through safer, more equal, greener and better-connected communities.

Councillor Mark Rowley, Executive Member for Economic Regeneration and Finance, Scottish Borders Council On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership
Councillor Mark Rowley, Executive Member for Economic Regeneration and Finance, Scottish Borders Council On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

Empty homes represent a wasted resource in the Borders (as elsewhere) and can also cause significant problems for neighbours and surrounding communities. We have a strong affordable housing programme being delivered by local partners, but with an average of around 16 bids for every social housing property that becomes available we recognise the important role that empty homes can play in boosting the supply of housing across the region.

It is in that context that the Scottish Borders Council recently hired its first dedicated Empty Homes Officer to help return long-term empty properties back into use. In just a few short months, the new officer has reached out to and supported multiple owners of empty properties. She has also developed our new matchmaker service to connect owners of empty homes with investors, and is utilising data and information on empty homes to strategically tackle empty homes. Importantly, the officer also co-ordinates a cross-council working group on empty homes, as multiple issue areas are affected.

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For example, addressing empty homes and wider condition and repair issues forms part of a staged approach to reach near zero carbon. Scottish Borders Council is committed to reducing fuel poverty and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through promoting energy efficiency improvements in the housing stock. When empty homes are being brought back in to use, we will be championing energy efficiency upgrades and the installation of renewable options where practical and feasible.

Addressing empty homes also contributes to the strategic objectives highlighted in a number of key local housing plans. Housing has a fundamental impact on the lives of people across the Borders and good quality housing makes an important contribution to many aspects of our region including supporting local economies, improving individuals’ health and well-being, and making communities safer.

We also recognise that reducing the number of empty properties can help improve the sustainability of our region, and the re-provisioning or re-purposing of existing buildings in town centres can help better meet the needs of the current and future population. Bringing empty properties back in to use aligns with the objectives of the Borderlands Growth Deal to stimulate the repurposing of towns and centres across the area and to attract and retain the working age population in the South of Scotland. This means more homes of all types, as more people recognise that the Borders is a great place to work from.

Triggering action on with empty homes will also help the Council to support the local construction sectors, create jobs and support supply chains while also significantly improving the quality of homes available across the region. We hope by stimulating action on empty homes we can further enable the region to attract inward investment, bolstering the areas economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of which have been felt throughout the Borders.

In terms of next steps, we have recognised the need to explore the creation of a specific fund to assist owners of empty properties to bring these properties back in to use, as the most common hurdle for empty home-owners is the financial cost of bringing the property back into use. We are also aiming to pilot an empty homes grant, which would prioritise bringing properties back into use that would contribute the supply of affordable housing.

Housing is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. Our homes are an integral part of the Borders’ physical, economic and social character, and we are committed to tackling the issue of empty homes head on for the benefit of our local economy, strengthening our communities and reducing our environmental footprint.

Councillor Mark Rowley, Executive Member for Economic Regeneration and Finance, Scottish Borders Council On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

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